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Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen | Book Review |

“I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin. I want.” ― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Now that I am thoroughly hooked onto Audible, I picked up Water for Elephants and am so glad that I did. This book is the perfect Audiobook as the entire story is a narration by the main protagonist.

Title: Water for Elephants

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Author: Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen is a Canadian born author who now resides in North Carolina, USA. She is the author of five books, each dealing with animals. Interestingly, Water for Elephants was turned down by her publisher, forcing her to find another publishing house. This book went on to being adapted on the screen in 2011 and became one of the top bestsellers on the New York Times list. Its been translated into 45 languages.

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Synopsis:

This book begins with a twin narration in past and present as Jacob Jankowski recounts the story of his life. In the present he is a 93-year-old man living out of an assisted living setup. Excitement and memories come flooding back when a circus sets up near the old age facility. Even as he waits for his family to turn up to take him for a visit, Jacob slips back into time to reminisce over his life.

23-year-old Jacob Jankowski had been studying to be a veterinarian at the Cornell university when he learns of his parents untimely death in a road accident. Stunned, he heads home to sort out his affairs and realizes his parents were broke and he doesn’t have a penny to his name. Unable to concentrate on his final year exams, Jacob leaves the college abruptly. Set adrift, he stumbles on to a train carrying a circus which becomes his home for the coming months.

He discovers the gritty world of show business which is struggling to survive in the Great Depression era in the US. Jacob is allotted to take care of the circus menagerie even as he tries to cope up with the class divide between the performers and workers.

“Is where you’re from the place you’re leaving or where you have roots?”
― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Trouble brews in his life unexpectedly when he falls heads over heels for Marlena who is in charge of the class equestrian act. She is married to August-the animal trainer who is manic depressive and gets into abusive moods. He seems to take a liking for Jacob who is unsure of the nature of this friendship.

Big Al-the circus owner had been growing his circus by acquiring performers, acts, animals from circuses that were going out of business. This is how they end up with Rosie the elephant who is determined to not be trained. She ends up on the wrong end of August’s bad mood on more than one occasion and its up to Marlena and Jacob to rescue her.

One day Jacob stumbles on the secret to communicate with Rosie and since that day she becomes the major attraction of the circus. This success brings Jacob and Marlena close who end up lovers and now want to escape from the circus and August.

A rebellion by the circus workers ends up in all the animals being set loose, resulting in a terrible stampede. Jacob rushes to rescue Marlena and witnesses Rosie bludgeoning August to death in the rush of confusion. Big Al is also discovered dead and its concluded that both the deaths are accidental.

“Dear God. Not only am I unemployed and homeless, but I also have a pregnant woman, bereaved dog, elephant, and eleven horses to take care of.”― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

In the present, Jacob slips out of the old age facility and makes his way to the circus where he happens to befriend one of the workers. Life gives him one more turn at being part of the show business when the circus worker stows him away in his van. Life comes a full circle for Jacob Jankowski.

“So what if I’m ninety-three? So what if I’m ancient and cranky and my body’s a wreck? If they’re willing to accept me and my guilty conscience, why the hell shouldn’t I run away with the circus?
It’s like Charlie told the cop. For this old man, this is home.”― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

Lasting impression on me:

I loved the twin narration as the protagonist slips in and out of time to tell the tale. His memories and impressions make for a very textural feel to the story of his life. Life in a circus, the mix of performers and workers and the constant pressure of staying afloat in the Depression era is what sets this book apart. Throw in the plot angle of star crossed lovers and a manic depressive husband, and we have a winner.

The writing is flawless and keeps you hooked to the end. A part of you wants to run away with the circus too even though the life depicted here is harsh and unforgiving. One is constantly rooting for the lovers, praying that no harm befalls them.

The mix of characters in the plot is what makes the lovers stand out and adorable. Whether its the bad tempered dwarf who Jacob rooms with or the psychotic husband or the insensitive circus owner – each brings drama, suspense and thrill to the table.

Besides the dark times of the Great Depression, the evils of prohibition and the drinking ills that afflict the circus workers, make for a very gripping addition to the plot. This has added a touch of historical fiction to an otherwise romantic tale.

“Age is terrible thief. Just when you’re getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back” ― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants

My rating:

My rating is 4.5/5 stars and I am taking the half star away for the title of the book. There is no mention of it in the entirety of the tale except when Jacob takes umbrage at a fellow old age home resident’s claim. You see this resident boasts of being in a circus and his job was to carry water for the elephants. Jacob is outraged as he knows it to be a lie because there is no such job in the circus.

So somehow I couldn’t relate to it as being the appropriate title for the book.

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Enjoyed reading this review? Perhaps you would like to check out the one I did for Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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4 thoughts on “Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen | Book Review |

  1. Hooked to Audible? You know that sounds like music to my ears <3

    I loved this one so much, especially the Audible experience. With background music, it was so dreamy! I loved the story as well, the narration was breathtaking too. Oh yes, the title was only mentioned once throughout the book. I realize that now. Looks like I was consumed by the dreamy nature of the book.

    1. I kept waiting to hear how the title is related to the story when the bit about the Old man and his boast in the nursing home comes up. Jacob is in such a huff and I thought it will pop out now. But no there was no mention of it later. There was only one elephant in the story and even then there was no mention of water for it – so yeah the title didnt make sense for me at all.

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